On Monday, the Irish showing of Aaron Biebert’s film A Billion Lives took place at the Odeon cinema in Dublin. It’s a documentary about vaping or “A True Story of Government Failure, Big Business, and the Vaping Revolution” as the promo puts it.
First off, let’s get the title out of the way. The use of the billion number has upset some people who dispute it’s accuracy. Which is fair enough but it’s a dispute that needs to be taken up with the anti-tobacco movement, it’s their number. This movie is using it to draw attention and give context to the argument it’s making.
Being somewhat passionate about this subject, I’m probably not the best person to review it. I happen to be better informed than the average punter who doesn’t smoke or vape. And this average punter is the target for this documentary, not me. I’m going to have to wear two hats for this review, vaper and disinterested viewer. We’ll get the disinterested viewer one out of the way first.
Not enough personal stories!
So I’m looking for a movie to watch, a documentary and I’ve selected A Billion Lives. Would I be impressed? Probably. This is well shot, well edited and makes its case in increments so I can keep up. The cinematography is especially impressive, there are some beautiful shots of landscapes, streetscapes (did I catch a glimpse of Dublin in there?) and buildings. If there is one area it falls on, it’s people. Not enough personal stories to frame the debate in the context of actual people at risk from the decisions made. The title tells us there’s a billion of them, I would like to have seen more of them.
None the less the narrative carries you along. From the early days of smoking, it’s growth as an industry, the realisation smoking causes loss of life, right through to the growth of the anti-smoking movement. It uses the Winston Man, David Goerlitz as the vector for this story. Through his eyes, we see the glamour and attraction of smoking. He tells us how he came to view smoking as dangerous and how he turned against the tobacco industry. This section takes up about a third of the movie and while interesting in its own right, it could be shorter. This is 2016, we get it, smoking is bad, big tobacco is evil.
Once the movie moves to e-cigarettes, it gets more interesting. If this was a fictional drama, this is the where the twist in the plot comes. The good guys become conflicted and in a convergence of interest take the same side as the bad guys. A Billion Lives shows this quite well without resorting to conspiracy theories. It presents the evidence and leaves us to draw our own verdict. Again it frames the story around David Goerlitz. Backing up his story with clips of contributors from both sides of the argument. Historical clips from TV shows from the anti side and face to face interviews with the pro side. I might criticise the lack of contribution from the anti-vaping section of tobacco control but as we learn just before the credits roll, they refused to comment or contribute to the movie. I would have stated this verbally in the movie rather than as text at the end. It’s an important part of the story.
All in all a well-made documentary, done with a passion for its subject. Recommended viewing for anyone interested in how, even with the best intentions money corrupts those intentions.
OK as a vaper and advocate of harm reduction, what did I think?
Well, I liked the film, it presented a clear case and did so without exaggerating that case. I would have liked more science around vaping. I felt it took for granted that the audience was fully aware of the evidence. I would love to have seen the anti side present their case and seen it countered but they declined to do so. I do understand this was less about vaping as such, and more about what influences positions. It started with the assumption that vaping was the solution to the tobacco problem. I suspect Arron was so convinced of this he forgot it might not be as obvious to everyone else.
Will it help our cause? Yes, if it gets seen. It should act as a rallying point for e-cig advocates and is a useful contribution to the debate. It’s not going to change the minds of confirmed ANTZ but it might tilt the ones sitting on the fence. More importantly, it brings the conflict of interest of the anti side out in the open for the undecided. The audience should be doctors and health professionals especially those working in smoking cessation, they have the most to gain from watching this.
Right now it’s being shown on demand, someone has to organise a showing, do all the promotion and hope they get enough bums on seats for the show to go ahead. Real grassroots stuff. Hopefully, it will make it to Netflix or one of the on-demand streaming services where it will find a wider audience. If you get a chance to watch it, don’t miss it.